By Sarah Nagem
Holt Moore, the attorney for Lumberton, said City Hall gets phone calls almost daily from residents complaining about panhandlers in street medians and parking lots.
In one incident, Moore said, someone asking for money tried to open a driver’s door.
Now Lumberton, the largest municipality in Robeson County and one of the poorest cities in North Carolina, wants to strengthen its rules to curb aggressive panhandling. But some local advocates for those in need are pushing back, saying people who beg for money should not be punished as criminals.
Many people who panhandle lack the basics that are often needed for employment, including an identification card, permanent address and clean clothes, said Brianna Goodwin, executive director of the Robeson County Church and Community Center.
“Those people can’t get up and go to work like you and I,” Goodwin said. “So they panhandle. What other mechanisms do they have?”
Lumberton, home to about 18,000 people, already has an ordinance that limits panhandling. The City Council voted on Jan. 8 to approve the first reading of a replacement ordinance that would ban “aggressive solicitation,” including approaching pedestrians and using foul language, within 25 feet of banks, ATMs and check-cashing businesses, on buses and at bus stops, at marked crosswalks and near schools and daycare facilities.
Anyone who violates the ordinance could be issued a civil citation or be charged with a misdemeanor, the same consequences outlined in the existing ordinance.
“Aggressive solicitation is disturbing and disruptive to residents and businesses and contributes to the loss of access to and enjoyment of public places and to a sense of fear, intimidation and disorder,” the proposal says.
Holt said the proposed ordinance will likely undergo changes to comply with state law, particularly when it comes to rules about panhandling in the right-of-way of roads. The City Council is expected to consider a second reading at its Feb. 1 meeting. The ordinance would go into effect if the council votes in favor of it.
Panhandling is protected as free speech by the First Amendment. But under North Carolina statute, cities can “prohibit or regulate begging or otherwise canvassing the public for contributions for the private benefit of the solicitor or any other person.”
Many other municipalities across the state have created panhandling ordinances. Wilmington has a ban on aggressive panhandling. Fayetteville bans people in vehicles from giving money or other items to pedestrians on the side of the road. Raleigh requires people who panhandle to get a special permit from the city.
Proponents of rules to curb panhandling say the measures are needed to keep people safe from harassment, and also to keep those asking for money safe in high-traffic areas. But critics argue that such rules dehumanize and criminalize the poor.
The median household income in Lumberton in 2022 was $41,314 — nearly $25,000 below the statewide figure, according to Census data. More than 29% of the city’s residents live in poverty, compared to 13% statewide. State figures show that 70 people in Robeson County were identified as homeless last year, although that number is likely much higher.
Rent prices in Robeson County have not risen as much as they have statewide, according to data from the N.C. Housing Coalition. But the increase — 26% over the past five years in Robeson — can be a huge burden to families.
Housing Matters, part of the Urban Institute, published an article in 2022 saying that “quality-of-life offenses” like panhandling ordinances increase the burden on police and community groups helping those in need.
Such rules rely on citizens to report panhandlers, the report said, which “creates a separation between people who are housed and people who are experiencing homelessness. This can lead to a cycle in which housing secure people are contributing to reduced security for people experiencing homelessness and a system that criminalizes poverty.”
Moore, the city attorney, said Lumberton leaders are “aware that there are a lot of folks in difficult situations.” He said the proposed rule changes are meant to keep people who panhandle safe and also to ease tensions among residents.
“People have their rights and you certainly want to address that,” Moore said. “Then we’re just trying to address these concerns that we’re hearing.”
Tina Bowen, who runs the Suds of Love laundry truck in Robeson County, said panhandling is a problem in Lumberton. Once, she said, she felt threatened by a man who approached her outside a shopping center.
But Bowen, who drives her truck throughout Robeson County to wash and dry clothes for people without access to laundry facilities, said the proposed ordinance is “not fair.”
Goodwin said a lot of people in Robeson County are compassionate toward those in need. But, she said, “I believe that there is a small fraction of our residents here in Lumberton who deem our unsheltered population as nothing more than a nuisance.”
“That particular group,” she said, “is really loud.”
Goodwin said those who get charged with panhandling could face an additional barrier to getting a job. Some people, she said, rely on the help of strangers for food.
“It’s inhumane by any standard,” she said of the proposal. “Do you want people to vanish? What is the expectation here?”